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Black Sheep By Douglas Wells, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia from 1992-96
Black Sheep By Douglas Wells, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia from 1992-96
By Douglas Wells, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia from 1992-96.
I’d never lived on a farm and never studied agriculture. But I was from Nebraska, a traditional U.S. farm state, and I could tell the difference between hay and straw; when I looked at a cow, I also understood that this end was the head and that end the tail. That really seemed to impress the recruiters at the U.S. Peace Corps when they were deciding where to send me-so I was sent to Estonia as an Agricultural Advisor.
Since I was supposed to advise farmers, I figured a good start was to find out just what exactly it is farmers do. When I got to my designated home base-the Estonian island of Hiiumaa-I pledged to spend every Wednesday working on a farm, to master the craft. I made the acquaintance of a local farmer and asked him if I could help. After initial skepticism, he agreed.
Every Wednesday, I carried out my chores enthusiastically: I cleaned the barn, fed the pigs and shoveled manure-much to the increasing delight of the farmer. He even boasted to fellow farmers about having the only American migrant worker in Estonia-one, no less, with a college
One day, I was thrilled to hear that today was the day to round up the sheep and bring them in from pasture for the winter. ‘A real sheep round-up!’ I thought to myself. ‘What luck!’
I was puzzled, though, when the farmer asked me to help him load his rowboat onto the back of the tractor. Sheep herding with a row boat? A quick check of my still shaky Estonian comprehension confirmed that, yes, sheep herding with a boat was the agenda. I wanted to clarify matters further, but decided to sit back and go with the flow.
When the farmer fired up the old blue Belarussian tractor, I jumped on and we were off in a cloud of smoke through the forest, and towards the sea.
At the waters’ edge, the farmer got off the tractor and pointed dramatically seaward. Eyes squinting in the wind-driven mist, I could just make out the silhouette of a small island about a kilometer off shore.
"Out there," he said, waiting for my reaction.
I was silent for a moment, then nodded. But my mind was racing. I’d heard something about this, taking sheep to the islands in spring to eat the grass and then bringing them back in the fall. The surrounding sea keeps the sheep in and predators out. But it was November: it was freezing cold, the sun was going down and it looked like a storm was rolling in.
I almost turned and ran back to the farm. But Estonians were always treating me like a weakling: lifting heavy things for me, fussing about my health. I just had to prove Americans could handle a really tough, manly job.
So, with a forced, nonchalant shrug, I grabbed my side of the boat, and we dragged it into the water.
A blast of cold seawater hit me in the face as the boat headed out to sea. We rode in silence for nearly half an hour with the whap, whap, whap of the bow slamming into the waves.
By the time we got to the island I was soaked and shivering-but I wasn’t about to let on about my discomfort. The farmer intently surveyed the round, grass- and reed-covered islet, which was only a few hundred meters in diameter.
The sheep were hiding out in the tall grass and reeds, the farmer explained, and we headed into the fray-the farmer with nets flung over his shoulder.
Before long, the ten sheep broke from their cover. They sped away across the island, muddy balls of gray wool on little spindly legs.
The farmer followed suit at a run and I tried to keep up in my wet, floppy boats. As we chased the sheep around and around the island, they effortlessly evaded us.
I began to realize there were serious flaws in the farmer’s modus operandi: First, we were likely to get worn out long before the sheep; second, how could you corner sheep on a round island.
"They’re almost worn out!" the farmer said encouragingly as I stumbled through the grass after him-lap after lap after lap around the island.
At last, the sheep stopped. Backs to the sea and panting hard, they stood their ground. As I stumbled up beside the farmer, the sheep stared at us, wide-eyed, but with a look that seemed to say, "Okay, wise guys, now what?"
The farmer dropped his nets, put his hand on my shoulder and spoke in hushed, conspiratorial tones.
"You see the big one there? That’s Yeltsin-the leader," he whispered. "We take him out and the others will be a cinch to catch."
The farmer picked up one end of the net, me the other.
"Okay, easy now," he said as we tip-toed towards the sheep. "We stretch out the net, then back them up to the water. Then throw the net over them."
Sounded reasonable to me. But the sheep had plans of their own.
As we slowly spread out the net, Yeltsin suddenly reared his head and then led the battalion of sheep in a headlong dash-straight into the sea. They went out 20 meters, then stopped. They turned and faced us defiantly.
By now, the temperature had dropped to near freezing and the wind blew stronger than ever. The farmer scratched his beard and then called a huddle. With our backs to the sheep, he laid out his plan by drawing on his palm with his finger.
The plan was for an amphibious assault. I would divert the attention of the sheep while the farmer would get in the boat, flank the sheep in the water, then net them, and pull them in. The farmer gave me a confident slap on the back and headed for the boat.
The sheep where shivering in the icy water. But I was feeling pretty good, proving, I figured, that I was no American pansy.
I faced Yeltsin and his wooly band for what seemed like an hour until the farmer rowed out from behind some reeds. He came in behind the sheep and finally got close enough to one farthest from the shore (not Yeltsin) and lunged at it, burying his hands in the wet wool and pulling it into the boat. This was no small feat as sheep are especially heavy when their spongy wool is water logged.
For the next few minutes, arms and legs flailed on the boat, water and wool flying up from the apparent brawl. A hand raised briefly above the gunwale, holding a long strand of twine, then disappeared again. The sheep bleated a few more times, then all went silent.
I stared, the sheep stared, and we all waited as the boat rocked gently back and forth on the waves-seemingly empty.
After a few moments, though, the farmer stood up and triumphantly raised the sheep’s legs-bound with twine. The end was near, I thought to myself hopefully.
The farmer raised an oar and began to pole in toward the rest of the Yeltsin’s flock. But the element of surprise was now lost, and the sheep looked anxiously at the boat, at me, then back at the boat.
But Yeltsin had stopped this frantic head-turning and was now focusing on me alone. I thought I could almost read his mind: "We can take this human. I know we can."
Suddenly, on some indiscernible signal, the sheep burst from the deeper water in unison and began galloping through the shallows toward the shore-toward me.
Facing ten wet sheep, knowing I was the last thing standing between either going home or doing several more laps around the island, I decided to make a stand. I lowered my head with grim determination and faked back and forth like an American football player, hoping to intimidate them into stopping.
They kept coming.
Plan B: I yelled and waved my arms like a madman.
They still kept coming.
Remembering what the farmer had said about getting the leader, I concentrated on Yeltsin as the panic-stricken mutton stormed the beachhead. I planted myself in front of him, fell to a three-point stance and tried to look as menacing as I could.
It was man against sheep. One on one.
Yeltsin wasn’t fazed in the slightest. He didn’t stop. He didn’t slow down. He kept coming at a full gallop-then put what seemed like a hundred pounds of wet wool straight into my chest and sent me flying onto my back.
I landed with a thud, and a strange, momentary sense of contentment came over me. But that didn’t last long-as another sheep planted his hoof firmly in my crotch, mud sprayed in my mouth and a wet, smelly woolen belly careened up my chest and across my face.
But as Yeltsin rolled over me, I did have the presence of mind (being a highly educated college graduate) to grab a hind leg. As the rest of the flock thundered by, I held on for dear life and screamed at the top of my lungs. "You damn sheep! I got you now, you S.O.B.!!" Yeltsin responded by dragging me back a few yards with his front legs and repeatedly kicking me in the head with his one free hind leg.
After submitting to this abuse for a while, I finally managed to roll over and get a grip on Yeltsin’s other back leg. Grabbing handfuls of wool, I worked my way up his back until I got an arm around his neck. I locked my legs around his thrashing belly and he finally submitted.
It was over. I had Yeltsin. I leaned over and, speaking into his ear, gave the sheep a few more choice words about what I thought about him and his kind.
I looked proudly toward the farmer in the boat, expecting an enthusiastic thumbs-up from him. But he appeared to be in shock. He just stared, mouth open, at the spectacle of this American-the first one he’d ever met-being assaulted by one of his prize sheep: they had fought it out on the gravelly beach with the American screaming unintelligibly at the top of his lungs, and now he and Yeltsin were locked in a death grip-with the American, apparently delirious, whispering something into the sheep’s ear.
The farmer snapped out of it, brought the boat to the shore, extricated the sheep from my grasp, and bound him with twine. We carried the now-helpless Yeltsin to the boat and chucked him in with his comrade. Two down, eight to go.
We captured two more sheep, threw them in with the other two and, with darkness closing in, decided to call it quits. With the farmer, his dog, four sheep and me, we pushed off into the wind-blown sea.
Wave after wave struck the bow. It also started raining. I hunched down and gritted my teeth to keep them from chattering. At least we were heading home.
Suddenly, the motor stopped. The boat started pitching in the waves, and the wind started taking us off course. When I looked back toward the motor, the farmer was hunched over it and it was covered in ice. We were drifting, with water coming over the sides.
Through the rain and darkness, I saw that we were headed toward some boulders in the sea. I had lively visions of a shipwreck.
The motor sputtered to life and then died again. The farmer pulled and pulled, but the motor wouldn’t fire. In vain, he blew into the carb and tried to warm it with his hands. Nothing. We were getting blown closer and closer to the rocks, closer and closer to disaster. Then, to make matters worse, the sheep broke loose and started darting around the boat-causing water to seep in and further imperiling our stability.
"Hold ‘em down!" the farmer yelled. "We’re going to go under!"
I stood up, spread my arms and swan-dived into the melee. I got a sheep under each arm and put my legs over the other two. I held them as tight as I could, so close I was breathing in their wheezing, smelly sheep’s breath and was nearly overcome by the smell of their wet, manure-caked wool.
As darkness closed in, and the farmer pulled furiously on the starter rope, we continued to drift toward disaster. We were only a few meters from the rocks.
Just then, by some miracle, the motor coughed once and kicked in. We had dodged a bullet and, sprawled over the mutinous sheep, I said a silent prayer of thanks.
When we finally hit the shore, I wanted to jump out and kiss the ground, but the farmer ordered me sternly to stay in the boat as he pried the sheep one by one from my grasp and loaded them on a trailer behind the tractor. Only then could I step onto land and breathe a sigh of relief.
After that harrowing, death-defying experience, it occurred to me that the farmer and I might hug each other or cry together for a while; I thought I’d at least get an approving, sympathetic slap on the back.
But the farmer didn’t say a word. He didn’t even look at me. He just calmly climbed on board the tractor and fired it up. I barely managed to hop up on the running board as he shot off for home.
Back at the farm, there were no welcoming committees-as I half expected there would be-no tearful relatives gathered around thanking God for sparing our lives. Just the farmer’s wife, who poured me some warm milk and a shot of vodka.
When she asked dryly how it went and what took so long, the farmer just shrugged his shoulders silently. I downed the shot of vodka and stood up to take my leave. The next day was a workday, and I had a six-kilometer bike ride ahead.
The farmer walked me to the door, shook my hand and said matter-of-factly and with no hint of irony: "See you next week."
I got on my bike and rode out of the farmyard, shaking my head. These Estonians, I thought to myself, it is true what they say about them being a cool, stoic bunch. Nothing gets them riled up. Nothing moves them.
As I turned onto the dirt road through the forest, I heard a sound and stopped. I got off my bicycle, and peeled my ears back in the direction of the farmhouse. The sound went away for a moment, then it came back-loud, clear and unmistakable: it was the roar of laughter.
The author, Douglas Wells, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia from 1992-1996. In addition to his farm work on Hiiumaa island, he helped set up the Hiiumaa Tourist Info Center. While here, Wells also wrote and performed Do you speak Estonian?, a song which went to No. 1 on Estonia’s pop chart. You can hear it on this site, here.
Wells left Estonia in 1998 to work in the press office of the Estonian Embassy in Washington D.C, and more recently was employed by the U.S. State Department.
Douglas Wells also recently wrote a book about his assorted adventures and exploits while in Estonia. You can read a description of the book, entitled In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment-Destination: Estonia, and also order a copy, here.
For more information about traveling to the Estonian islands, see the Baltics Worldwide tourist section. Hiiumaa island’s website is www.hiiumaa.ee.
-CITY PAPER-The Baltic States